We Need More…But Not More of the Same

Given the imminent arrival of the Leveson Report, Planning Minister Nick Boles’ foray into the difficult territory that is UK green-field development did well to make Newsnight last night. During most of the day I had been following the opening Twitter-salvos on this one between @CPRE and @ColinWiles, picking up their cudgels where they let them fall, exhausted, after the battle of the NPPF.

I have enjoyed Colin Wiles’ rational and pragmatic commentary on issues of planning and housing delivery over the last year or so, such as this from February this year, and I made similar observations myself back in October 2010 – indeed it’s why I started Ruralise. It is the brutal mathematics of housing-delivery in the UK that Nick Boles now seems determined to address head on: we have brownfield land to accommodate 1.2 million homes, but we need to build perhaps 3 million over the next 20 years. Solving the housing problem means building in the countryside. It is not a question of whether this should be done, but how.

It was good to see Boles placing such emphasis on design in his communications yesterday, observing that a majority of people when surveyed say they would be more supportive of development in their area if it was better designed. Thankfully there was no mention of Poundbury, and The Wintles in Shropshire got an encouraging name-check, but Boles’ admiration for Letchworth is more obvious. In a video segment before the Newsnight panel-debate Boles visited Letchworth in the company of a rather weary looking David Birkbeck of Design for Homes, who noted that he’d done the same tour with three previous planning ministers to apparently little effect.

He also pointed out that the very essence of Garden City/Suburbs like Letchworth – their generous but simple street planting – is regarded as a liability by Local Authorities adopting new roads from house-builders, not a value-adding asset. The problem is that if you strip out the grass verges, box hedges and boulevard planting, increase the density to something like the minimum 30 dwellings per hectare that many local plans still demand, and swap sub-Arts-&-Crafts for lowest-common-denominator-pastiche-Victorian/vernacular, you end up with the tediously familiar housing estates which are already spreading like a rash across farmland adjacent to our towns and cities. If Boles really wants to grasp the nettle he will need to work out how the flood of new homes will be better than what has come before.

When it comes to new homes we certainly need more, but not more of the same.

Next post (rather fittingly!): Forest Village #10 – A Crowded Island
To read the full Forest Village series, start here.

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